Thousands of teachers have used Oak National Academy, but the number of pupils using our platform runs into the millions and they have plenty to say on the subject of online learning. Their perspective and feedback are important to us, so our research team organised a series of workshops with 9-to-16-year-olds to hear their views and compare it to the findings of our teacher research.
As ever in education, the challenge is to balance the needs and wants of different groups (pupils, teachers, parents) and align these with what the research shows makes the biggest difference to teaching and learning.
The benefits of flexibility
Just like us adults, pupils had mixed feelings about learning from home. The obvious pros for being back in school are socialising and getting on-the-spot help from teachers. But, just like grown-ups, children who enjoyed being at home talked enthusiastically about having more flexibility. Their equivalent of putting on a load of laundry during the day is being able to eat whenever they like.
Many also mentioned they felt less judged than in the classroom, having time to process new materials at their own pace and being less anxious about not getting things right immediately. Fewer distractions and lower levels of noise were also highlighted by some pupils.
What makes a good video teacher?
Particularly among younger children, certain characteristics of good video teachers were especially important: clarity, passion, kindness and personality.
When it came to clarity, pupils highlighted the helpfulness of chunked content, which they called step-by-step learning that “doesn’t make their brain tired”. And as to passion, they were able to sense a teacher’s enthusiasm for their subject from both verbal and non-verbal cues. As younger pupils put it, they prefer teachers with “happy voices” and those not reading from the slides.
Kindness was characterised by staying calm and allowing time to get things right, which seemingly reduced children’s anxiety around failure, and the personality aspect was consistently linked to authenticity – that sense that teachers were not acting but being themselves. For example, one child remembered an art teacher who got ‘messy’ and made the lesson more fun as a result.
Tell me more
Pupils unanimously talked about the importance of feedback. They wanted immediate feedback about whether and, more importantly, why their answer was right or wrong in quizzes and models. Hint features on quizzes were greatly appreciated, as were increasing levels of challenge for providing a sense of achievement.
But pupils really missed getting personalised reassurance from their teachers, an emotional aspect that can only partly be replicated by digital tools.
Pupils expressed how fond they are of feedback features that help them see their own progress and learning in context. Some online platforms supply easily digestible individual data, while others provide whole-class challenges coupled with leader-boards. Wider evidence backs the benefit of both approaches in decreasing off-task behaviours and stimulating participation.
A survey earlier this year of Oak users and non-users found fewer than half (42 per cent) said they went back to their usual ways of teaching when the last lockdown ended. For the majority of teachers, the disruption appears to have brought significant changes to their practice.
Indeed, 53 per cent of Oak users say they now use the platform for lesson delivery in the classroom. Closures seem to have enabled some teachers to see the potential of technology more fully, and others to develop the systems and work-flows to make that potential a reality.
Perhaps most encouragingly, pupils too have altered their ways of working. While in a remote setting, they were often directed to work through lessons in a linear fashion. But many are now using Oak in a less structured way. For example, they revisit a difficult concept, watch a short, relevant section of a video or test their knowledge by taking a quiz.
The legacy of school closures could be a completely new relationship between teachers, pupils and online learning. Insights like those above, informed by young people’s voices, hold the key to ensuring that potential is realised.